Standing on the hilltop at an archeological dig, Maxine Grossman removed her shoes. Using her socks, she brushed sand and dirt away from a colorful — and ancient — mosaic.
It was 1989, and Grossman was in Israel on a college study program, getting “down in the dirt,” as she puts it now, at the remains of the ancient Jewish city Sepphoris.
“It was a peak experience,” said Grossman, 53.
Waking up at dawn, busing to the dig site and laboriously filling wheelbarrows with dirt catalyzed her career in Jewish academia. It was her “aha” moment.
“I came back from the dig going, ‘This is it, this is it! This is what I want to do.’”
In July, 32 years after her aha moment, Grossman became president of the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland.
She said that even at Hebrew school in her hometown of Richmond she was fascinated by the ancient Jewish world and would read ahead of the rest of the class in their history textbook.
“I was a super nerd,” she said.
After majoring in religious studies at Duke University, Grossman went on to earn a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focused on the Dead Sea Scrolls, 2,000-year-old fragments of Jewish religious writings.
Initially, the scrolls were more like a jigsaw puzzle. “People were like, ‘Look I found a piece! And it goes with another piece!’” said Grossman, a Silver Spring resident and member of Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase.
Scholars identified fragments of almost every book of the Hebrew Bible — plus other documents.
One of those other texts is the Damascus Document, a collection of sermons and rules written in literary language. It was compiled by a Jewish sect traditionally known as the Essenes.
Grossman’s research aimed to understand the sect on a deep level. To do this, she first analyzed the group’s religious claims. Members were committed to serving God, and the Damascus Document demonstrates that they were well-versed in the Torah.
“They would quote the Bible to make their point,” she said.
When studying the sect, many scholars focused on their historical origins. Grossman said that the Damascus Document is not a history book. Rather, “it’s how the sect understood their role in God’s cosmic plan.”
“If a religious text has an ideological purpose, maybe you shouldn’t trust it to give a straightforward historical account,” she said.
One of the sect’s beliefs was that everyone else’s approach to Judaism was wrong, Grossman said. “If we only tell their story from a historical perspective, we lose the understanding that their movement was based in theology and biblical interpretation.”
She said the sect was an example of the larger question she was trying to understand: How do all people see themselves religiously?
“My training in religious studies led me to ask, what do people mean by ‘religion’? How do people make meaning?” she said.
Grossman, who joined the U-Md. faculty in 2001, now teaches a class — Is Judaism a Religion? — that tackles those questions and explores what being Jewish means to different people.
“More than a quarter of Jews today identify as Jewish, but not by religion — by something else,” she said.
Some identify as a Jew through social justice issues. Others connect to Jewish culture, food and Jewish comedians.
“If we only think about religion, we miss out,” she said.
Grossman’s latest goal is to shift away from the popular term “Essenes” for the sect. The Essenes were associated with a male-centric group who were often celibate. Using the term “Essenes” ignores the social responsibility the sect’s women held, she said.
“Our world today is complicated, and the ancient world was no simpler.”